"The amazing thing about Jason," I said, "is not just that he's one of the world's top jazz drummers, but the fact that he can play the traditional New Orleans style as well as all the modern stuff."
"Yeah, well he's checked out all that stuff--the roots," said Ellis. "See, when I was coming up, I didn't have any exposure to the old stuff. Nobody in my family played music, so I didn't have anybody to point me to it. I came up playing bebop. It wasn't till I was much older that I started listening to the traditional guys. It was Danny Barker who started clueing me in on that."
Danny Barker, a New Orleans-born banjoist and guitarist, played most of his career with Cab Calloway and other New York-based groups. But when he came back home in the late 1960's, he became a vocal proselytizer for traditional jazz. He's the one who organized the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band and gave a lot of younger black musicians—including Wynton Marsalis, Leroy Jones, and Michael White—their first exposure to the music that was in fact their birthright. I knew about Danny's mentoring role with the kids, but never imagined that he was also giving pointers to experienced jazzmen (albeit modern) like Ellis.
Then Ellis told me something that really got my attention: he had started out on clarinet and actually took lessons with one of the funkiest, jazziest, swingingest old-style players in town—Willie Humphrey. Here's the story:
"I went to old Mr. Humphrey's house for my first lesson. He told me, 'Just play something, I want to hear what you can do.' I played a little, then he gave me a book. He said, 'You got to work on these exercises. I want you to learn all these scales and arpeggios and come back next week.' He only charged a dollar a lesson, but I didn't have any money on me so I asked if I could pay him the next week. He said okay."
"Did you learn the exercises?" I asked.
Ellis chuckled under his gray, otter-like mustache. "Naw, man. I never went back there. And Willie never forgot. Years later, I mean decades later, I was playing at Crazy Shirley's on Bourbon and St. Peter. Willie used to walk by there on the way to Preservation Hall. One night he stuck his head in the door and shouted, 'Hey, kid! When you gonna pay me that dollar you owe me?"
It was a funny story, but it got me to wondering, quite seriously, what would have happened if young Ellis Marsalis had taken to the clarinet and continued his lessons with Willie Humphrey? What if he had become an old-style clarinetist instead of taking up the piano and following the be-bop road? Would his musical sons—Wynton, Branford, and Jason—have cut their teeth on traditional jazz instead of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker? Would they be playing at Preservation Hall today instead of Lincoln Center?